Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Jean Baudrillard: "The Spirit of Terrorism"

Jean Baudrillard
(July 29, 1929 - March 6, 2007)
Lecturing at European Graduate School
Saas-Fee, Switzerland, June 12, 2004
(Image by David Horvitz, from Wikipedia)

The seventh anniversary of 911 approaches, and my thoughts turn to some of the early analyses, among these the remarks by Jean Baudrillard in "The Spirit of Terrorism," Le Monde, on November 2, 2001 (translated by Dr. Rachel Bloul), which were taken by many as implicit justification, by others as amoral 'aestheticizing', and by a few as critical theory's pop psychology moment:
That we have dreamed of this event, that everybody without exception has dreamt of it, because everybody must dream of the destruction of any power hegemonic to that degree, -- this is unacceptable for Western moral conscience, but it is still a fact, and one which is justly measured by the pathetic violence of all those discourses which attempt to erase it.

It is almost they who did it, but we who wanted it. If one does not take that into account, the event lost all symbolic dimension to become a pure accident, an act purely arbitrary, the murderous fantasy of a few fanatics, who would need only to be suppressed. But we know very well that this is not so. Thus all those delirious, counter-phobic exorcisms: because evil is there, everywhere as an obscure object of desire. Without this deep complicity, the event would not have had such repercussions, and without doubt, terrorists know that in their symbolic strategy they can count on this unavowable complicity.
Is there something to Baudrillard's remarks? Evil "as an obscure object of desire"? The evil that lurks within our own souls drawing us to gaze in complicity upon an act of terrible, wanton destruction?

But where was Baudrillard taking this point? To the movies:
This terrorist violence is not "real". It is worse in a way: it is symbolic. Violence in itself can be perfectly banal and innocuous. Only symbolic violence generates singularity. And in this singular event, in this disaster movie of Manhattan, the two elements that fascinate 20th century masses are joined: the white magic of movies and the black magic of terrorism.

One tries after the event to assign to the latter any meaning, to find any possible interpretation. But there is none possible, and it is only the radicality of the spectacle, the brutality of the spectacle that is original and irreducible. The spectacle of terrorism imposes the terrorism of the spectacle. And against this immoral fascination (even if it engenders a universal moral reaction) the political order can do nothing. This is our theatre of cruelty, the only one left to us, -- extraordinary because it unites the most spectacular to the most provocative. It is both the sublime micro-model of a nucleus of real violence with maximal resonance -- thus the purest form of the spectacular, and the sacrificial model that opposes to historical and political order the purest symbolic form of challenge.
Baudrillard places us as spectators before a 'singular' event and leaves us there, treating the singular event as unique and therefore incomparable, resisting analysis: "The terrorist attack corresponded to a primacy of the event over every model of interpretation."

Except that Baudrillard is interpreting . . . or trying to. But he instead falls into mythologizing:
In the traditional universe, there was still a balance of Good and Evil, according to a dialectical relation that more or less insured tension and equilibrium in the moral universe; -- a little as in the Cold War, the face-to-face of the two powers insured an equilibrium of terror. Thus, there was no supremacy of one on the other. This symmetry is broken as soon as there is a total extrapolation of the Good (an hegemony of the positive over any form of negativity, an exclusion of death, of any potential adversarial force: the absolute triumph of the Good). From there, the equilibrium is broken, and it is as if Evil regained an invisible autonomy, developing then in exponential fashion.
What was this "total extrapolation of the Good" that destroyed the "balance of Good and Evil"? The defeat of communism in the Cold War? The defeat of that evil destroyed the 'balance'? But in the "traditional universe," despite Baudrillard, good and evil did not exist in a 'balance' or 'equilibrium'. This is the language of pop fantasy like Star Wars or the fantasy literature of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea cycle. In traditional views, good triumphs over evil . . . ultimately.

In Baudrillard's mythology of balanced oppositions -- an equilibrium now lost through absolutizing the good -- there would have been no terrorist attack? Only good destroys the balance? Evil would not?

But in making the good an active force, Baudrillard would seem to be drawing upon the Western philosophical distinction, e.g., in Saint Augustine, that accords being to good and nonbeing to evil, so where's the symmetry to which he appeals?

At this point, my understanding of Baudrillard falters.

Labels: ,


At 3:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I consider that Baudrillard is simply, "painting a picture." That he leaves the "paintings" viewers to interpret his final, yes final product is not surprising, nor perplexing to me. Ignorant, as I admittedly am.

I am not by this example, comparing or equating any thing here. I use it simply as "an example."

Many people through the centuries have looked on the Mona Lisa, I suspect many interpreted from their own perspective, just why the artist chose to depict her smiling just so.


At 4:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That may be why some have criticized him for 'aestheticizing' the terror.

Taken out of context, some of his statements sound very offensive; taken in context, they sound at least inappropriate for one writing only two months after 911.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



At 10:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

. . . and as I write this comment now, here in Seoul, the date is the seventh anniversary of 9/11.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And in Zulu time: nearly the same.

A particular blogger might totally disagee with a a particular comment-thus labelling the commentor inappropriate. But if the commentor accepts the premise of a book review, and is currently advising his own grandson to enlist, while unfortunately calling upon any who might take the comment as "well."

It is easy to put up the sons of others. Bobbitt it seems, is calling for the "Long War."

I wonder how different the language and the timing of Baudrillard and Bobbitt differ?


At 5:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, you've lost me on this:

"thus labelling the commentor inappropriate."

I referred to Baudrillard's 'analysis' as not precisely appropriate so soon after 9/11. Is that what you're referring to?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


Post a Comment

<< Home